Queen of All Scream Queens: Barbara Steele

Black Sunday (1960)
Black Sunday (1960)

With wide, dark and haunting eyes, Barbara Steele is known to horror fans worldwide as the “Queen of all Scream Queens.” Having starred in Mario Bava’s highly praised 1960 Italian film, Black Sunday (a.k.a. Mask of Satan), Steele cemented her place in horror movie history by playing the dual role of Princess Asa Vajda — a witch / vampire hybrid — and Katia Vajda, her victim. Despite being dubbed in England and America, the movie made Steele an international star, and the film became an almost instant cult classic. In the decades that followed, she would be sought out by the likes of Roger Corman, David Cronenberg, Jonathan Demme — even Ryan Gossling — for her often odd, mercurial presence.

Barbara Steele
Barbara Steele

Born on December 29, 1937 in Birkenhead, Cheshire, England, Steele studied paiting at both the Chelsea Art School and the Sorbonne; but her first love was acting. Reportedly the last person to be signed as a contract player for the Rank organization, Steele began her film career in the late 1950s, mostly in bit parts in forgettable films. She eventually signed to 20th Century Fox, and spent time in Hollywood. Yet little work came here way. Flaming Star (1960), a western vehicle for Elvis Presley, was her big chance at Hollywood fame; but, reportedly due to her thick British accent, she was replaced by Barbara Eden. Steele claimed she quit the production. Whatever the cause, she left Hollywood in 1960 for Italy. Her first role there was in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday.

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

It was Black Sunday that brought her to the attention of Roger Corman, whose Richard Matheson penned mishmash of Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) was her very next film. As Vincent Price’s wife Elizabeth, she is a spectral presence — seen mostly in flashback — for much of the movie. But a memorable ending, with Steele’s piercing eyes peering from behind the small slit of an Iron Maiden, was enough to further build her reputation in genre pictures. Once again, her mere presence in even a small scene demanded attention, though Corman — believing her working-class English accent too big a distraction — had her voice later, ironically (as it was an American production), dubbed.

Moving on to the truly terrible Italian film The Horrible Doctor Hitchcock (1962) and a small but critically noted part in Fellini’s (1963), Steele was underused. Many Italian films followed, including more forgettable horror films (The Ghost, and Long Hair of Death), then an odd turn as a suspicious wife in a short vignette that was part of 1964’s I Maniaci. Her presence, once again, sets her apart from other actresses in the film — perhaps the very reason why her image was placed squarely on the movie’s somewhat salacious poster where men stare at her (a feminist field day for those who study the male gaze).

Again, as before, Italian horror films followed, including the more notable Castle of Blood (1964), and Nightmare Castle (1965).  In 1966, she would make her last “Italian Gothic” film: An Angel for Satan —though the Italian-British production of The She Beast could also, technically, have that distinction. Shot in only 21 days, She Beast saw Steele paid just $1,000 for a single day’s work.

Work followed in the 1970s in the form of exploitation (in Jonathan Demme’s 1974 directorial debut: Caged Heat) and b-grade horror — including David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975) and Joe Dante’s Piranha (1978). She would close out the seventies with a starring role as a psychotic killer in one of the first “slasher” flics ever made: 1979’s The Silent Scream.

She would retire from the screen for the entirety of the 1980s, and the 90s, with the exception of a role in Dan Curtis’ early nineties remake of Dark Shadows for television. It wasn’t until the 21st century that her career would be revived in two of her most well-reviewed roles: 2012’s The Butterfly Room, an American-Italian thriller, and 2014’s bizarre fantasy noir Lost River, as a MIss-Havesham-esque grandmother in Ryan Gossling’s directorial debut.

The Ghost (1963)
The Ghost (1963)

Italian director Ricardo Freda —who inexplicably used the English sounding pseudonym of “Robert Hampton” to direct Steele in 1963’s The Ghost — wrote glowingy of the actress in an article for Mid-Miniut Fantastique published that same year; he remarked that “her eyes are metaphysical, unreal, impossible… [and] there are times in certain conditions of light and color, when her face assumes a cast that doesn’t appear to be quite human, which would be impossible for any other actress.”

That Barbara Steele stare
That Barbara Steele stare

Indeed, it is her visage — her eyes, her expression, and a glance that could be both inviting and dismissive— that has defined her career. Early on, she was never much given the opportunity to speak. But those eyes. Those eyes told stories.

Though she would never become a household name outside of genre films, her fans are obsessive. Black Sunday posters like the one at the beginning of this article still sell well to this day. And up until just a few years ago, she attended conventions, drawing large crowds of autograph hounds. If she had begun and stopped with Black Sunday alone,  her place in horror movie history would have been secured. But her vast body of work over several decades has earned her the right to be called not only a scream queen, but their Queen.

For it is her ability to express without words the terror of both monster and victim that sets her apart from so many other actresses. As Freda put it, she can assume an expression “that doesn’t appear to be quite human.”

Is it any wonder then that so many directors of horror films over the last fifty years have sought her out. Horror is unsettling when it challenges our preconceptions of what it is to be a monster. What it is to be the victim.

Indeed, what it is to be human.


Paperwork for the Devil

Faust making a pact with the devil, lithograph, 1885
William Gladstone as Faust making a pact with the devil, lithograph, 1885

From Faust to Robert Johnson, fictional and historical figures alike have been mythologized for making pacts with the devil. Beelzebub. Lucifer. Old Scratch. Satan. The Devil is a decidedly Christian being that, while having demonic precursors outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition, is pretty much a product of the Old and New Testaments. Sure, the Babylonians had many malevolent demons. The Egyptians had their dark gods. Zoroastrianism even had a nasty spirit named Angra Mainyu. But it’s in the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, that Satan really takes shape — first as heaven’s prosecutor of sorts. Later, in the Synoptic Gospels,  Satan comes into his own as both the great red dragon of Revelation, and the evil being that tempts Christ in the desert. And it’s his role as tempter of Christ that leads to a depiction of the Devil as one who can fulfill desires — for a price. Much like a genie (or djinn), the Devil can deliver on all things worldly.

Even make contractual agreements.

Theophilus of Adana, a 6th century cleric, may be the first documented story of a someone who makes a pact of this type. The archdeacon of Adana, part of modern day Turkey, Theophilus is said to have, out of humility, turned down a promotion to bishop. But when the bishop elected in his stead deprives Theophilus of his position as archdeacon, the poor priest comes to regret his decision, and seeks out a magician to help him contact Satan. In exchange for his help, Satan demands that Theophilus renounce Christ and the Virgin Mary in a contract sealed with the cleric’s own blood. Theophilus agrees, and is made bishop.

Fearing, however, that he has put his immortal soul in jeopardy, Theophilus repents, fasts, and implores the Virgin Mary to intercede on his behalf with God. Satan eventually relents, and Theophilus wakes to find the contract on his chest. He shows the contract to the legitimate bishop, who then forgives poor bastard and burns the document. Out of sheer relief, Theophilus dies and, presumably, goes to heaven. Oh, and he’s made a saint — which gives hope to everyone who’s considering selling their soul.

The tale is attributed to an eighth century scribe, Paulus Diaconus of Naples. From a modern Latin translation comes the details of the pact itself: “Let him deny the son of Mary and those things which are offensive to me,” says the Devil, “and let him set down in writing that he denieth absolutely, and whatsoever he may desire he shall obtain from me, so long as he denieth.” And so it would seem that we have the first instance of such a pact, and the importance of the written contract.

That element of such a pact — as a written contract — is repeated again and again in the centuries to come. It would eventually finds its way into literature — most notably, first in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (https://www NULL.gutenberg NULL.org/files/779/779-h/779-h NULL.htm) (1592). And from the 16th to the 18th century, countless witches would be tried and executed over the accusation of such agreements.

Urbain Grandier's Pact with the Devil
Urbain Grandier’s Pact with the Devil from Dictionnaire infernal ou bibliothèque universelle, 1826

The case of the 17th century French Catholic priest Urbain Grandier is perhaps the most infamous of these trials (and the inspiration for Aldous Huxley’s Devils of Loudun); what unique about Granier, however, is that an actual printed document was presented at his trial in 1634. Said to be penned by all manner of demons and the Devil himself, it is a mishmash of reversed Latin and many occult symbols. In it, Grandier is promised “the love of women, the flower of virgins, the respect of monarchs, honors, lusts and powers.” He’s only given 20 years before his soul is forfeit, but it would seem the Devil got his due much earlier as Grandier was tortured and subsequently burned at the stake. With phrases like “He will go whoring three days long; the carousal will be dear to him,” the contract is quite detailed in its promises.

But a simpler tale of a deal with the Devil may be actually be found in a fairy tale commonly referred to as “The Smith and the Devil.” In it, a blacksmith trades his soul for supernatural powers, and then uses this power to trap the demon with whom he made the deal. So straightforward a story, it was collected by the Brothers Grimm in their two volume (1812 and 1815) Children’s and Household Tales (though it was removed from most later editions).

Like most folktales, the origins of the story are murky. It was readily believed to be European in origin or possibly Russian. That is, until very recently when folklorist Sara Graça da Silva and anthropologist Jamie Tehrani argued that “The Smith and the Devil” may in fact be one of the oldest known folk tales on the planet, and was told from India to Scandanavia. In their 2016 study “Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales (http://rsos NULL.royalsocietypublishing NULL.org/content/3/1/150645#F4),” the authors present evidence that the basic plot of the tale is found across the Indo-European speaking world dating back over 6,000 years, to the Bronze Age.

But a signed contract? With the story of Theophilus not being readily told until the 11th to 13th centuries, it seems that the Devil requiring a physical contract is a relatively recent development, historically speaking.

All in all, I suppose it’s better to get it in writing.